14 December 2015

Archiving Fat Activism

My book, Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement is built on research. Some of this research involved interviewing people and some involved sifting through archival material.

I went to archives to look for fat activism because there are very few books and papers available that document it so I needed to look at original source material and try and piece things together. I drifted into archival work, it wasn't part of the original plan for the research but I just kept getting pulled further in because the things I found there were very moving and exciting to see. Where I often feel isolated in my present-day fat activism, in the archive I could clearly see myself and others as part of a much bigger movement, it was like visiting my ancestors. I felt a duty to witness the fat feminist activism I found there and to become an agent of its transmission. I'm not a spiritual person but this came close to being like a religious experience for me and was very emotional work. Sometimes I would find things that I had made in the archives I was searching too.

The materials I had the pleasure to read and handle represent evidence that is not in mainstream spaces. I also think that you sort of have to know a bit about what you are looking for when you visit one of these archives looking for fat activism, for example it helps to know about particular women. In addition, you'll soon get very lost if you use dominant culture language like 'obesity epidemic' for example. What I'm saying is this: your years of living in the margins are an asset in an archive when you are looking for fat activists.

I was very lucky to have a period where a lot of my travel was funded by a research institution, namely the Irish Social Sciences Platform. This was a dream come true. But you don't necessarily need cash to look at an archive. The ones I've listed below are free to use, and some are online. If you live in a big city, chances are that there will be archives, perhaps queer or feminist archives, perhaps archives with local newspapers and newsletters and flyers, perhaps archives that have zine libraries and finding aids where you can search for fat stuff. You don't have to be a student or part of a university, these resources are open to the public, ie you. Perhaps, like me, you are interested in setting up fat activist community archives, or are finding out about DIY archiving.

Fat activist histories are so very fragile because fat people are not culturally valued and often we do not value our own lives enough to document or preserve them. The material that does get archived represents the tiniest tip of the iceberg in terms of what constitutes a social movement of fat activists. Where people are further marginalised their legacies are even more fragile. People of colour and trans people's fat activist archives are particularly invisible, even within archives that are already very marginal spaces. One of the most painful experiences of being in an archive whilst looking for fat activism is the knowledge that there are terrible absences.

With this in mind, I urge fat activists to support archives that are open to documenting and preserving the evidence of our lives. Think about donating not just money but material, keep copies of things you make, encourage others to do so, learn how to use archives, try not to be intimidated by them.

Anyway, here are some of the archives that I visited between 2008-2015 to look for fat activism. Some have bigger holdings than others, some are more like libraries than archives, some require many visits and others are worth an afternoon of your time. Check them out if you can.

56A Infoshop
A radical social centre and book shop in London that also has a zine library and is generally a happening place to be. In fact, zine libraries, anarchist info centres and autonomous social spaces can be good places to find fat activism.

A wonderful feminist queer media archive in Hamburg. They have an active interest in supporting fat activism and hold the original copy of A Queer and Trans Fat Activist Timeline.

Black Rose Library and Info Centre
This anarchist centre in Sydney was evicted from its longstanding home and is now on hiatus. When it flowers again you can find a handful of fat activist zines in their collection.

A really beautiful queer library in Bologna. Some fat holdings.

The Feminist Library
A brilliant community library in London. It has a lot of my stuff in there, and also full collections of 1980s lesbian journals such as Sinister Wisdom, which were hotbeds of fat feminism. Indeed, their periodicals reading room is the place to be if you want to know about early fat feminism in the UK and US.

Gay and Lesbian Historical Society
Based in San Francisco, this archive is a wonderland and its fat holdings include flyers, leaflets and boxes of Judy Freespirit's papers and personal effects. A compelling space.

Glasgow Women's Library
Beautiful, friendly local library and archive that has some fat activist material and, I'm sure, would be interested in collecting more.

Hall Carpenter Archives
Britain's prominent queer archive. It's very formal but don't be put off and don't be afraid to ask for help. They have an excellent collection of LGBT journals.

The Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan
Mind-blowing and massive queer archive, one of several special collections at the University of Michigan that should be of interest to fat activists. I found some holdings but only had a short amount of time there. I'm sure there's a lot more if you dig.

Lesbian and Gay Newsmedia Archives, a fabulous collection hosted by the Bishopsgate Instutute, a centre of working class research and culture in East London. Their queer clippings library is really worth a look.

The place for US fat feminist activism. Maintained by Karen Stimson for many years, this ESSENTIAL resource is now offline, though you can find its pages through the Wayback Machine internet archive. Completely worth your time. Try searching for http://www.eskimo.com/~largesse/ at The Wayback Machine.

Lesbian Herstory Archives
Situated in a house in Brooklyn, the archives have some fat holdings and very helpful volunteers to help you navigate the lovely space and its collections.

The Queer Zine Archive Project is an incredible free resource. It has some fat zines in its collection, and some of my stuff too. zinelibrary.info has also been a useful repository with some fat zines, but it is currently offline. Perhaps try searching snapshots of it through the Wayback Machine.

Spare Rib
The British Library hosts a full digital run of this feminist magazine, which includes important fat activist articles from the late 1980s. There is a keyword search, a bit fiddly and hard to find but great if you can get it to work.

Peaceful feminist archive in Berlin. Some fat activist material, they are interested in collecting more.

Stuart Hall Library
A small, well-curated library in London mostly dedicated to art and design but with more political and sociological works and material on fat by women of colour.

Sinister Wisdom
This journal of lesbian feminist arts and culture was founded in 1976. It has been sympathetic to fat feminism over the years and is a rich source of material by and about fat activists. Issues 1-57, more or less, are archived online and are available to download for free.

Trouble and Strife
The whole run of this British feminist journal has been digitised and is available online. Includes essential pieces from the 80s-90s by Heather Smith, Tina Jenkins, Karis Otobong, Cath Jackson and Margot Farnham.

The Women's Library
Important national collection now buried in the London School of Economics. Their collection is excellent, they have a full run of Fat News, but access leaves a lot to be desired.

I was thwarted in my visit to the Mayer Collection at the University of Connecticut by a blizzard and an ice storm. I tried! Very sad to have missed it but their finding aid is illuminating in itself.

Meanwhile, there are many more archives that I would like to visit. Two in particular are The Schlesinger Library at Harvard University which has the holdings of a number of fat feminists involved in the early part of the movement. The other is June Mazer Lesbian Archives in Los Angeles, which has more West Coast early fat activism holdings.

There is also work underway on a major disability archive in the UK, which I hope will have at least some material on fat in its collection. The People's History Museum in Manchester is also a useful resource, though at present underdeveloped as far as fat activism goes.

Also, you know, The British Library, The Wellcome Library, the big institutions are also there and worth a look, though the places I've listed above have better fat activist material, in my opinion.

Are there other important archival sites for fat activism that I have overlooked? Add them in the comments please.


Sharon Lia Robinson said...

Here is a link to the hard copy of the original Shadow on a Tightrope (writings by women on fat oppression) anthology that Vivian Mayer (Aldebaran) and I collected with the intention of having it published in book form. Some of the material in this collection was not included in the published book. People who visit the Schlesinger Library on Women's History, Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts may research and view this collection. Additional work of mine is also in this archive, including outsider fiction and plays.

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Great! Thanks for the reference!

Sharon Lia Robinson said...

You are welcome, Charlotte. I appreciate all of your research and your dedication to preserving fat activist history.